In the Maoist belt, the Left Front expects a turnaround as people have grown weary of violence and Mamata's assurances.
ON the night of December 15, 2005, Nabin Hembram waited at home fearing death at the hands of the Maoists. He had got news that armed Maoists had entered his village, Bagdobi in Bankura district, and were looking for him. His little daughter who was with him decided to seek help. She ran through the dark, dense forest surrounding the house and managed to reach a nearby office of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). The party workers contacted the nearest outpost of the Central Reserve Police Force, whose personnel intervened in the nick of time and saved Nabin's life.
Nabin was an influential CPI(M) leader in the village, which falls in Ranibandh constituency, and the Maoists had set their sights on the 30 bighas (1 bigha = 8,700 square feet) land his family owned. Though thwarted that day, the Maoists were to return to administer a gruesome revenge.
While Nabin and his wife and daughter fled the village and sought refuge in a safer place, his mother and younger brother and sister stayed behind. In 2009, the Maoists killed his brother, Kalipada, outside the village, and in April 2010 they came looking for Nabin. When they could not find me, they decided to make an example of my mother and sister. They tied them to the beds and set fire to the house, Nabin told Frontline. His mother, Kamala, 80, and sister, Saraswati, 60, were burnt alive.
This is just one example of the situation that has prevailed for the past four years in the Maoist-affected contiguous forest areas of Bankura, Pashchim Medinipur and Purulia districts, collectively known as the Jangalmahal region. This region votes on May 10 to elect representatives to 40 Assembly seats in the three districts. Of these seats, 15 are in the forest region and of them 14 are Maoist-affected.
Since November 2008, after a failed assassination attempt on Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee in Salboni near the Lalgarh region in Pashchim Medinipur, more than 250 people have been killed in the region mostly CPI(M) workers, leaders and supporters and hundreds more have been forced to leave their homes. It has been a concerted effort to wipe out the CPI(M) from the region.
In Pashchim Medinipur district, out of 19 seats, seven including Binpur, Jhargram, Nayagram, Salboni, Medinipur and Gopiballabpur are in Maoist-controlled areas. The Trinamool Congress and the Maoists have joined forces in these areas and established a reign of terror. People now want peace. If fair elections are ensured, the Left will win here, a resident of Jhargram said. In fact, in Gopiballabpur and Jhargram alone there are eight regions where the Left has not been able to campaign, though the Trinamool Congress has faced no problems.
Durga Tudu, a CPI(M) leader of Urlidanga village in Jhargram constituency, feels that anger against the Trinamool-Maoist nexus is growing. Those who were initially supporting them have come back to our fold. People in the region now want peace above everything else, he told Frontline. In the Belpahari region alone, in the last one year, 52 CPI(M) workers have been killed and a few hundred rendered homeless. Among those who were murdered was a 14-year-old boy, Phulchand Mahato.
In the Pirakata forested area, less than 20 km from Lalgarh the epicentre of the Maoist movement in the district lives Jagannath Mahato, a CPI(M) zonal committee member. He was forced to leave his home in Sri Krishnapur village in the Lalgarh region and go into hiding after the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, in which the Left Front suffered one of its worst setbacks in electoral terms. While his family, including his wife, daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren, now lives in Medinipur town, Mahato has chosen to live in Pirakata to remain close to his village and try and mobilise people against the Maoists. Their terror tactics are not working anymore. People are now resisting them, and finally we have managed to bring some peace and stability.
Madhu Mahato has a similar story to tell. He too is in hiding in the Pirakata forest region after fleeing his home in Sapkata village in 2009, when Maoists burned his house for his political affiliation. However, the fact that many like Madhu are yet to return to their hearth and home is an indication that the turnaround of the political milieu is yet to be complete.
According to Pashchim Medinipur CPI(M) district secretary Deepak Sarkar, the Maoist menace has, on the whole, been beaten back politically by the CPI(M). Though they are forever hatching new conspiracies, in 70 per cent of the places where they were strong, they are now on the back foot, he told Frontline.
In another interesting development, Chhatradhar Mahato, the jailed leader of the Maoist-backed People's Committee against Police Atrocities (PCPA), decided to contest the Jhargram seat. His decision has come as a surprise because this pits the PCPA against its close ally the Trinamool Congress. This gives the CPI(M) candidate Amar Bose a clear advantage because Chhatradhar Mahato, considering his enormous influence in the region, is bound to snatch a substantial chunk of the anti-Left Front vote that would otherwise have gone to the Trinamool Congress.
According to political observers in the region, this might be a ploy of the CPI (Maoist) to keep the Trinamool Congress on its toes and not take the support of the PCPA for granted. Trinamool Congress supremo and Railway Minister Mamata Banerjee was seen as maintaining her distance from the PCPA during the run-up to the elections. Soon after Chhatradhar Mahato announced his decision to fight the elections, the Maoists reportedly issued a statement saying that though their organisation was boycotting the elections, they would not prevent people of the region from voting.
In Bankura district, though Maoist influence is restricted to just three constituencies Taldanga, Ranibandh and Raipur the violence they perpetrate is no less intense. In less than 18 months, they killed 22 people, including four police personnel. Upen Kisku, former State Minister and MLA from Raipur, told Frontline: It is only people in the Maoist-affected areas who know the real enemy. They can see through the game of people who are Trinamool activists by day and Maoists by night and will not vote for them.
Bankura, which is traditionally a Left bastion, seems to have done well so far in countering the wave in favour of the Trinamool Congress. Even in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, Bankura sided with the Left, giving it a lead in 11 out of 12 Assembly segments. Bankura town was the sole exception.
In Purulia district, Bandwan, Balarampur, Baghmundi and Joypur are the sensitive constituencies, with Maoist presence. In fact, in the last six months, left-wing extremists facing stiff resistance in their strongholds of Pashchim Medinipur and Bankura have reportedly relied more on the forested hilly tracts of Purulia for their operations. In one night in December last year, Maoists killed seven Forward Bloc members from four different villages.NANDIGRAM
The Maoist menace and the Trinamool Congress' nexus with the militants are among the burning issues in these elections, The other is land acquisition for industrial purposes. Mamata Banerjee's arbitrary opposition to such acquisition provided her the platform for her political turnaround. Nandigram in Purbo Medinipur district and Singur in Hooghly district were the places from where the resurgence of the Trinamool Congress began.
For over a year the tiny hamlet of Nandigram was a bloody battlefield in the turf war between the CPI(M) and the Trinamool Congress. In this the latter had the support of the Maoists, the Socialist Unity Centre of India (SUCI) and various small parties. The violence escalated when 14 villagers were killed on March 14, 2007, in a police firing during an agitation triggered by rumours of land acquisition. Even now over 12,000 people remain homeless after they were ousted from the region for being Left supporters. Though the Left's weakened position in the region may reduce its chances of staging a strong comeback, it may benefit in some pockets from the Trinamool Congress' own factional problems.SINGUR DILEMMA
The other interesting region to observe is Singur. It was here that Mamata Banerjee's prolonged and violent agitation for the return of 300 acres (one acre is 0.4 hectare) of land to reluctant farmers was instrumental in forcing Tata Motors' prestigious small car project out of the State. The project was tipped to bring an industrial resurgence in West Bengal. Though the Singur region has since become a Trinamool Congress stronghold, discontent and desperation have crept in among many of Mamata's ardent followers there.
The winds of change are slowly dying here. We stood behind Didi [as Mamata is popularly known]. Now we need to know if she will stand behind us when she comes to power, said a resident of Gopalnagar village in Singur.
Adjacent to Gopalnagar is Beraberi, many of whose residents have lost their land to the project. Bitterness can be detected in their taciturnity as they turn away from questions and inquiries. They lost the land but got no compensation for it. Since 2008, they have waited in the hope that the land would be returned to them as Mamata had promised. That hope, too, is now fading with the realisation that Mamata cannot legally have the land returned to them.
In their sullen silence there is perhaps a sense of betrayal, which they are too proud to admit. What have you come here for? To watch the fun? To see how we are doing? These harsh words from an elderly woman said more about the real situation in Singur than all the rhetoric over microphones during their leaders' campaigns.